Extremophile – n. – A microbe that lives in an environment one thought to be uninhabitable, for example in boiling or freezing water. (Source: dictionary.com)
In the not-too-distant past, scientists believed that in some respect, all life was powered by the Sun. In essence, the Sun was the bottom of the food chain for every organism on Earth. The sun powered the growth of photosynthesizing organisms which fed larger and larger organisms, and so on.
However, in 1977, Jack Corliss of Oregon State University along with two others (Jerry van Andel and Jack Donnelly) discovered tube worms growing in scalding waters of hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean, far from any trace of sunlight. These organisms were feeding off the chemicals released by the vents – they were chemosynthesizing.
Since that discovery, the known environments that can host life has absolutely exploded, and life can be found almost anywhere you look on Earth–even some of the most inhospitable places. To pseudo-quote Jeff Goldblum: “Life uh, uh, uh, finds a way.”
This wide variety of environments of ecosystems on Earth has contributed immensely to the probability that we may discover life of some sort elsewhere in the universe. An entire field of exobiology (or astrobiology) has erupted, and exobiologists go to extremes on Earth to understand what life needs to survive in extra-terrestrial environments. While making analogues to Earth-based organisms may be a bit clunky, it’s the best we have.
Now the British Antarctic Survey is taking the search for extremophiles to, well, extremes. Researchers are drilling through three kilometers of Antarctic Ice to reach a lake (Lake Ellsworth) that has been covered and isolated for at least 100,000 years. If they can find life in this environment, which is eerily like what we might find on the Jovian moon, Europa, that would be an extremely exciting discovery. At the same time, if there is no life, that is of significance in and of itself.
The science team is taking great care to ensure they do not contaminate the lake with microbes from the surface, including all manner of sterilisation schemes. In fact, the project was delayed while the scientific community debated on how best to proceed. If I recall correctly, a Russian team was intending to do the same thing and was stopped.
In any case, this is a very exciting time for exobiology. You can watch live updates at http://www.ellsworthlive.org.uk/ — you can bet I will be. Let’s wish the researchers luck and happy hunting!
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